It’s All About Accuracy

By Mark Nichol

During my editing career, I’ve corrected some significant factual errors in manuscripts before they were published — mistakes that would have compromised the authority of a book or a magazine or newspaper article, or at least embarrassed its author. (Aw, shucks, don’t mention it — it’s my job.) I’ve also probably overlooked a few.

And I’ve introduced some in my own writing: In one book review, I identified the author by the wrong first name. In another, I gave Canis domesticus as the scientific name for the dog. (It’s Canis familiaris, or Canis familiaris domesticus, or Canis lupus familiaris.) In a recent post, I relied on my very limited knowledge of French to address a comment to mon amis, rather than to mes amis. (My editor caught the two book-review errors, and a few of this site’s readers called me on the friendly faux pas, as some have done with other infelicities of mine.)

So it is as a sympathetic peer, not as a sneering superior, that I entreat you to practice due diligence in optimizing the accuracy of your writing.

Analyze Your Errors

Do you consistently make the same types of errors? Misspelling of people’s names? Erroneous wording of lengthy job titles or organizational names? Math mistakes? Record and tally your errors, and resolve to triple-check every instance in your problem area(s).

And don’t rely on the popular media for this information. Go to the source — an individual’s or organization’s website — or to a respected reference work. If you are math challenged, consult with a computationally adept ally.

Keep a Checklist

For every article or blog post or other piece of content you write, produce a checklist from a master template you keep on your computer or in your hard-copy files.

On this list, direct yourself to check names and titles of people, names and locations of places, URLs, numbers and math, and definitions and explanations. Verify quotes, and check for spelling and grammar errors (and for spell-checking errors).

When you interview or consult with someone, ask them to spell their personal information. (My surname is the least common of several variants, so I always spell it out over the phone without prompting. Many people with unusually spelled names do the same, but a surprising number don’t.) Confirm all other details and information with objective resources. Keep track of Web links and other access to information. And especially if you’re writing about recondite or controversial topics, ask people you interview to identify situations in which other writers introduced errors into their articles so that you can avoid passing fumbled facts along.

Delete Your Ego

How many of you have read an article about something you have inside knowledge about and noticed factual errors? I know I have. Understand that accuracy in reporting is a problem endemic to professional and amateur writing alike. But determine to be someone who does something about it.

Acknowledge and correct your errors. If your sources are unreliable (facts or findings contradict the prevailing understanding) or subjective (an expert spins facts to support their viewpoint), jettison them and obtain more reliable ones. Always verify. (Follow the time-honored warning to reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) And cultivate your skepticism; don’t let impressive job titles or institutional names or other trappings of infallibility distract you from seeking the truth.

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11 Responses to “It’s All About Accuracy”

  • Karl Klein

    In this otherwise fine essay, Mr. Nichol writes, “an expert spins facts to support their viewpoint.” He must know that the plural pronoun “their” does not agree with its singular antecedent “an expert.” How do so many educated, experienced (expert?) writers make this obvious error? Is it political correctness? Is Mr. Nichol afraid of putting “his” viewpoint in play? What about “her” viewpoint?

  • thebluebird11

    I love the quote about “your mother”; that’s a riot.
    In my field, as I listen to doctors (and others) dictate reports on patients, you might be surprised at how many errors they make, some of which are obvious enough for me to catch even without knowing the patient, made even easier for me to catch, verify and correct if I have access to reports for the same patient, dictated by others. What makes me scratch my head is when there is a patient with, for example, an unusual first name and a routine last name (e.g. “Shaquanesha Jones”), the doctor spells out “Jones.” I guess that’s why I have a job!

  • Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

    I am not sure I’ve told you, but I find your blog EXTREMELY helpful. I love coming here and getting smarter. I started writing my blog 2 years ago (on Jan 2) and when I started to write novels, found that I did make mistakes over and over. My first common blunders were:

    1) 98′ instead of ’98, for a year.
    2) “The dog is misquoting Yogi Berra, again” he said (I never remembered the comma after “again”
    3) I would use quotes around a title, instead of italics.

    This is just a smattering of my issues, but each time I noticed something habitual I would work to make doing it correctly the norm.

    Now, my interest is in battling the pesky comma. I’ve learned the rule for conjunctions and continue to work on the others.

    I’ve also done exactly what you suggested with keeping a list. For my 2nd novel, I’ve hired an editor and I send her 10 pages at a time. When she returns them, I carefully review and catalog the results. Then I reexamine the next 10 pages, before I send them to her. It is working! The last set took 25% less time for her to edit than the 1st set. It saved me money, but mostly it made me happy.

    Thanks for your blog and all the help you give those of us with delusions of writer.

  • Geosota

    Could not agree more. Recently I was reading a book about the step in evolution that gave us big heads and walking on two feet. I was fascinated until the author misidentified “mammals” as a phylum. That was no little mistake, but I kept reading. A couple pages later, he described the Krebs Cycle as “making” glucose. At that point I was done.

  • Mark Nichol

    Karl:

    Please read my post about the singular they.

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    Thanks for your note. I’m glad you’ve found this site useful!

  • Todd

    I also mentioned the other day about my use of a Bad list, which contains searchable words that I tend to overuse or misuse. Lists and checklists are an excellent idea for self-editing.

    Also, I made a note just this morning about a resource for the Linnaean classification of species: http://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

    Yes, I know, the debate rages about whether to use Wikipedia as an authoritative resource. I happen to believe in the interative correcting and subsequent accuracy improvement in open-source-edited material. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Todd

    (Sigh) Speaking of self-editing, I could do with a little of that myself. Here is a corrected re-post:

    I also mentioned the other day about my use of a Bad list, which contains searchable words that I tend to overuse or misuse. Lists and checklists are an excellent idea for self-editing.

    In addition, I made a note just this morning about a resource for the Linnaean classification of species: http://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

    Yes, I know the debate rages about whether to use Wikipedia as an authoritative resource. I happen to believe in the iterative correcting and subsequent accuracy improvement in open-source-edited material. That’s just my opinion.

  • Michele Cooper

    I’ve made my share of bloopers, too! Here’s a good article about fact-checking – humorous, but it makes the point. http://motherjones.com/media/2011/12/mac-mcclelland-burma-fact-checking-politifact

  • Mark MacKay

    Great article but it misses one important step before publication. Don’t proofread your own material. The author is too close, too familiar with his or her work. All manuscripts should get a cold read before delivery. And remember to do your fact checking. Two sources are best. And get hard copies of the sources or PDFs for your files.

  • Ken K

    Mark,

    Thank you for the advice.

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